The world is divided into those who acknowledge the problem and those who tend to ignore it. There is so much distraction these days, why on earth should somebody worry about something that does not even seems a big deal? Or is it a big deal? This article looks one more time on single use plastic facts.
Plastic. Is it even a problem
Plastic is a 19th
century invention, having its real dissemination only in 1950 and the debates on its uses and problems are only just beginning. Think about. In fact, the first initial plastic materials are not yet even 100 years old, and the advancements made to overcome environmental factors providing stronger and more lasting materials certainly strengthened the more recent plastic products we purchase. Originally, plastic was just a mix of organic polymers with high molecular mass derived from petrochemicals but the most recent materials have all kind of additives and hold the promise of keeping us company for even longer.
The fact that humankind is capable of producing such a long-lasting material, molding the petroleum resource into forms and shapes that better support and fulfill our needs on itself is not an issue. Imagine our ability to produce and mold cement, constructing strong infrastructures and providing a fighting chance against hurricanes, earthquakes and natural disasters. If our ancestors had had that technology history of humankind as we know it would be a lot different.
The technology is not the problem, our use for it is.
Since its discovery in the 1950s, humankind produced a total of 9.2 billion tons of plastic of which 6.9 billion ton has already been discarded as waste, of which 6.3 billion did not make it to the recycling bin (Parker, 2018).
Where is all this plastic
The numbers are alarming, but because of waste management (and our own power of adaptation) we seem to not locate all the residue found. In part that is due to our brains getting used to the trash spread out among us, the useless plastic that sits lying around us constantly and we fail to notice. Another part is because it is not among us, but in the oceans.
Studies developed by Jenna Jambeck et al. (2015) estimated from 192 coastal countries plastic disposal that a total between 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic is entering the ocean yearly. The worst part is that due to all the incredible features that we added to it, it might take hundreds of years to degrade, if ever.
Most of this plastic is not even dumped from boats or in big containers as a “solution” to the waste problem, it is actually considered “accidental” or just plain run-off washed away in the tides. However, although we don’t really see a floating plastic layer when we look out at the ocean (yet), the problem is piling up and slowly becoming visual.
Clean sandy beaches are harder and harder to find, but soon you’ll run into Garbage Patches more and more frequently, as long as the tide helps out. You don’t believe me? Take a look at the Figure below. This is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch officially discovered in 1990s. The patch now is constituted of over 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, weighs over 90 000 tons and is larger than two states of Texas put together (Rice, 2018). But you can still pretend you don’t see if you’d like.
Why does that matter
The first reason why managing all this residue is important is quite obvious. Marine and coastal life have been suffering from this contamination for decades now and we are seriously compromising the survival of endangered species yearly. Actually, reports point out that 267 species are affected by plastic contamination worldwide, of which a total of 86% of all sea turtles in the world face some kind of problems due to plastic.
The numbers are also alarming for marine mammals (43% of all) and even sea birds (a total of 44% of all the species) are affected by the pollution (Laist, 1997). And the problem doesn’t stop there.
Moore et al. (2005) discovered that due to the chemical bonding properties of plastic, it is actually capable of attaching persistent organic pollutant to its surface, transporting them through the oceans current. In other cases, the marine life that ingest these plastics can reabsorb them and the organic pollutant is reinserted in the food chain again.
How does it affect us
The truth is, no one really knows. Plastic contamination is so recent to humankind that the final effect is still hard to estimate. For now, all the loss of marine life is the immediate consequence, the growing incidence of debris tides reaching our shores is also noticeable, but the long-term effects of ingesting these contaminated animals are still hard to point out.
More importantly, the Ocean Patches like the one seen in Figure 1 are known to breakdown the debris into smaller and smaller particles, reaching a microsize and being so called microplastic.
Microplastics range from 5 milimeters to 100 nanometers in size and are found in places you wouldn’t imagine. Just to keep the numbers tangible. A kilogram of sea salt, can contain over 600 units of microplastic (Thiele and Hudson, 2018).
And you cant even see it. Not to mention that it is still found in other sources, even if it doesn’t come from the sea itself. The worse part is, that in truth, we don’t know what that means to your own health. So why take the chance?
What can we do
From all the plastic consumed, the biggest villain must be the Singe Use Plastic. As the name suggested, it is meant to be used once (maybe twice if you’re creative) and discarded. Which are they? Well, let’s give you two of them (and a task). Plastic water bottles and shopping bags.
Now, look around you. No matter where you are. You can be home, at your doctor’s office or in your workspace. It does not matter. I am certain that you will find at least one of those two around you (even if its plastic cups for water fountains it still counts).
And then you can pile up some more examples: plastic straws, food packaging, forks, knifes, plates, coffee cups, and so on. There are a series of materials that for convenience and in the promise to avoid cross contamination are made as “Single Use Plastic”. These are the biggest villains of all.
Estimations point that worldwide a million plastic bottles are sold every single minute and that the largest plastic market today is for packaging. More alarming: from all the plastic produced, 40% are only used once (Natgeo, 2018).
And if the numbers weren’t alarming enough, the problem gets worse. Big global recyclers like China are slowly closing their doors and rejecting the waste generated from the so-called developed countries. In 2017, China banned the waste coming from UK that has already added up to 2.7 m tons of waste in the last 6 years (Laville, 2017).
Doing your part
Governments have slowly started to take action by promoting less use of plastic in general (and specially the Single Use type of plastic) but a lot can be done individually. By a simple assessment of your own personal environment you can easily point out little changes that can be done personally that contribute largely for plastic consumption reduction (and it might even save you some money).
Get yourself a long-lasting water bottle. Preferably not the BPA-free plastic model. Try purchasing a metallic one, or even a glass water bottle (glass has a much cheaper and easier recycling route than plastic). And carry it around.
Another personal measure is getting yourself a shopping bag. Most shops are now charging for their plastic bags and in some countries their commercialization has been banned altogether. It’s an avoidable change. Get yourself a couple while you’re at it for the whole family to help out.
Also avoid excessive packaging for most of your shopping. You can shift to in bulk shopping easily available in every major city or you can simply carry your own containers when grabbing take-out from your local restaurant.
It’s a matter of adapting, small little steps in the right direction can help out a lot at the end. Spread the word. Although it will take humankind a couple of years to really adapt to these new environmental demands the process is slow and urgently needed.
The only way we will avoid worsening the already serious problem is by not adding up to it anymore.
Special measurements to contain, collect and clean the oceans are already being taken by both private institutions and governments worldwide, but we all need your help.
Do your part and be proud to be walking in the right direction. The planet and your kids will thank you.